a weekend at marxism: how do we relate to the SWP?

6 07 2011

David Broder reflects on this weekend’s Marxism festival, a thousands-strong conference organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party. He argues that the libertarian left should be doing more to engage with SWP comrades in order to provide a positive alternative for those put off by how it organises.

Marxism is the biggest event on the British left. Across five days several thousand people converge on London for the Socialist Workers’ Party summer school, including representatives of most other significant left groups. The conference itself is SWP self-promotion, so they do not invite groups they disagree with for debate: they prefer to give a platform to ‘big name’ trade union leaders, politicians like Tony Benn or Marxist academics, who may sermonise for socialism but won’t really question the SWP’s own modus operandi.

This is a great shame, since ‘Marxism’ has great unfulfilled potential. It could be a weekend for the left to debate strategy and ideas in a collective way. Instead, the meetings are heavy on top-table speakers, while SWP audience members tend simply to reaffirm what the speaker has already said. Often in an anti-cuts meeting or similar, The Commune members will question whether we should really be collaborating with Labour politicians, what kind of direct action is appropriate, or if we should be making more radical, positive proposals rather than purely defensive demands. The SWP stock reply is: this isn’t the time to debate among ourselves, we need to be ‘out there’ campaigning. OK, so when can we have these debates?

The problem is that without an understanding of what exactly we want and how we are going to win it, we are just headless chickens. This is a recipe for defeat. Indeed, this is borne out by the SWP’s own recent experience. In the years 2004-2007 George Galloway was feted at Marxism as the tribune of the people; those of us who said Respect was undemocratic and Galloway unaccountable were ignored; soon enough Galloway abandoned the SWP and they lost control of Respect. The SWP’s totemic recent mobilising success, the Stop the War Coalition, was ‘broad’ and liberal in orientation and top-heavy in its structure: it was politically ineffective and the SWP lost control of it with the departure of John Rees and Lindsey German.

SWP members are undoubtedly very active in the anti-cuts movement, they seem to have had the ground cut from under them somewhat by Rees and German’s Counterfire group. The latter set up the Coalition of Resistance, which is politically indistinguishable but far more of an organising success than the SWP’s own Right to Work campaign, a shallow front organisation. RtW has no basis for independent existence, except that the SWP can control it unchallenged.

Yet there is no public debate as to why these problems have come about. SWPers do of course think about and question these things:  at Marxism I met plenty of individual SWP members who were very critical of this experience. But a number of them attributed the ‘mistakes’ only to individual leaders, now-removed; others were critical but unable to organise with others to change the party. This seems both to be a result of the SWP’s ‘formal’ lack of internal democratic structures, but also the political justification behind this lack of democracy: that debate and ideas are less important than urgently-necessary activism, or rather, that debate is unimportant because activism is so important.

Trot-bashing

To a degree this view extends beyond the SWP itself, and this is reflected in what I would see as the ineffectual libertarian attitude to SWP comrades. There exists a sort of received wisdom that ‘the Trots’ are just conniving to betray the working class, that ‘Marxism’ is shit because it is an SWP recruitment rally, or that being a free spirit unattached to a group is a far higher ideal than being part of some party machine. So we shouldn’t bother to relate to the SWP, but just leave them to do their malevolent thing. We’ll do our activism, they’ll do theirs. Such views extend from the anarchist left to the Socialist Party, who did not have a stall this weekend.

I can see why people say these things. Outside ‘Marxism’ meetings SWP members dish out membership forms: you could join their party without explaining your own views, as long as you are willing to fill out a Direct Debit. The SWP sees itself as the revolutionary partythe instrument of socialist transformation in embryo, and this is certainly reflected in their confident self-promotion, deprecation of other left groups and insistent, repetitive focus on party building. Personally I was particularly shocked by the damaging role they played in the 2009 SOAS occupation, for these very reasons.

Against a backdrop of defeat the SWP has to manufacture triumphalism and stress the possibility and reality of immediate successes to keep the party-building going. There is thus a sharp contradiction between the SWP’s revolutionary socialist theoretical assumptions (nationalised economies are state capitalism; Labour is just a bourgeois party) and reformist everyday demands (nationalise the banks and industry; ally with Labour against the Coalition). They collapse into choosing between the alternatives immediately posed by bourgeois politics (Washington vs. Tehran, Labour vs. Tory), which are always impossible to answer satisfactorily precisely because capitalism is itself the problem.

But nonetheless I think this ‘left common sense’ about the SWP  misses the point. It does not relate to SWP comrades as comrades.  They join that group because they want to make a better world, their highest ideals little different from anyone else on the left’s. Many do so because it is the biggest group, or due to the accident that the SWP was the first set of activists they come across. The SWP may well – certainly do – fuck up campaigns and struggles, but not because they actually want to.

Moreover, their desire for collective organising or to pull people into political activism is ultimately borne of a healthy instinct. Pulling together people in the same workplaces or communities into joint action is clearly superior to atomised individuals feeling they can do nothing. As such the appropriate attitude is not to ignore or flatly denounce ‘the Trots’, both of which attitudes merely keep these comrades at a distance, but rather to more consistently engage with their ideas. I feel the text of ALARM’s leaflet was sort-of-OK in this regard, although it failed to explain what exactly is wrong with the SWP and exaggerated anarchist successes in Spain or UK Uncut.

Having attended Marxism each of the last eight years – and been called a ‘sectarian’ and worse more than most people – I have no illusions that winning over SWPers is easy, and clearly tonnes of people in the SWP believe all other groups including us to be irrelevant, slightly fruity sects. But given the great contradictions of a zig-zagging organisation, and its very high membership turnover, we have a responsibility to ensure the people put off by the way the SWP work do not develop hostility towards the left, or organisation, in general, but rather instead join our own, positive project. If ‘the Trots’ are too self-promoting, it is too easy to react by recoiling into a sort of self-deprecating passivity, or taking their enthusiasm as a bit of a joke.

How we relate to them

As the saying goes, the biggest group on the left is the ex-SWP. If we want to build revolutionary organisation and ideas in this country, we have a responsibility to address that problem. If indeed the way ‘the Trots’ organise discredits and weakens the left, what are we going to do about it? Will there be tens of thousands of isolated ex-members – many put off or expelled for the same reasons – or can we engage these comrades in discussion as to what are the right lessons to draw? Far from me to say that our focus should just be on the left, or people already in organised groups, but libertarians ought to at least relate to these people. Otherwise, someone put off by the SWP’s bureaucratism or insistent self-promotion could as easily drift into reformist campaigning as turn to a libertarian communist organisation.

Moreover, we should try and undercut the SWP in doing those things they do best. The fact that we raise difficult questions about how the left organises or what society we want to see, and provide an open forum for debate, is not opposed to but rather should go hand-in-hand with being positive and outgoing. One way in which The Commune are going to do this will be with our new paper. We will be greatly increasing our circulation and also handing it out for free. This should allow for a wider propagation of our ideas and better engagement with the broader activist left. Similarly, we hope those who find our ideas of interest will be willing to help distribute the paper, even if they do not feel prepared to join our network.

I say all this largely as self-criticism. At Marxism this weekend the leaflet I authored was rather-too cynical, and we did not do enough to build for our fringe meeting, which attracted about fifteen people. We did do a stall on three of the five days, sold some papers and gave out a lot of leaflets. But given some of the conversations we had, I feel that a more systematic intervention would have been worthwhile. First and foremost this is a matter of speaking to people at the stall, on the grass outside UCL, in the bars. But going and making points in the meetings would also have been worth it: however little time they give you, it would have been worth making our presence better felt.

We will never likely be in the same organisation as the SWP, still less some electoralist left unity project like Respect. The left is riven with in-fighting, sectarianism and people who won’t even talk to people in other groups. But the answer to this is not to turn away in disgust, but to try and combat this culture. If we do not take responsibility for addressing what is wrong with the existing organised left, we will never overcome the barriers the big Trot groups pose to revolutionary organisation.

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9 responses

6 07 2011
Michael Bosman

My dealings with the SWP confirm the concerns you state in your article, I have found that to often members of the SWP refuse to particpate in anything they have not established and, worse, denigrate it.

But I believe as left libertarians a preferable tactic is to respect each others’ differences, work with others where we agree and only refuse to work with others where we believe what they are doing or saying is contrary to our ethics.

6 07 2011
Wirral Socialists

Good article and good leaflet. Two minor points, the Militant Tendency (“Socialist Party of England & Wales”) I spotted with a stall on the Thursday evening. Also the Durham Miners’ Gala attracts tens of thousands so if you consider that political, then its a bigger left event than Marxism.

6 07 2011
Jim Parker

“The problem is that without an understanding of what exactly we want and how we are going to win it, we are just headless chickens” Actually the problem with knowing exactly what we want leads us straight into sectarianism? Does Dave’s quote replicate Lenin’s position?
Despite that the main point being made is correct we just have to devise a way to involve others in a critical ongoing discussion. To do that you have to avoid accusations based on historical events as these closedown any discussion into old well argued positions.

Cheers

JIm

6 07 2011
davidbroder

Hi Jim

I don’t make “accusations”, merely try to draw out the lessons of the SWP’s recent experience.

I do not particularly love historical analogy, but in return have little time for your “does Dave’s quote replicate Lenin’s position?” Well, certainly there are many negative as well as positive lessons from Lenin. A clear stress on democracy and not bureaucracy is one, and equally seeing how the society we want should shape how we organise.

Some SWPers might say the ruling class is tightly organised with its police and army, so we have to be too. But we are not in some war where we just need maximum efficiency to crush the other ‘side’.

We want to overthrow all sorts of social relations, hierarchies and inequalities daily acting on us under capitalism. We are animals of this system. The working class is not outside these relations, so therefore must change itself in order to be able to overcome them and create a new world. Thus democratic organisation is essential. However, the SWP organises in an undemocratic way which mirrors, rather than challenges managerial politics.

A few people drawing up a blueprint for socialism is not the way forward. But what we should do is constantly debate on how we are organising, how we can win stuff and critically reflect on what we are doing. The SWP does not do that in a democratic, collective way, the only way that works.

As for sectarianism – you might say, not inviting a Labour MP to an anti-cuts rally is sectarian because it cuts us off from people. But I don’t think that’s what sectarianism is. You might equally say inviting the MP will put other people off. Marx says sectarianism is raising group interests over those of the class. Well, I think broad fronts are sectarian in this sense, if they hand authority to politicians and union leaders as opposed to enhancing working people’s self reliance and confidence they can organise democratically as a class.

Cheers
David

8 07 2011
max farrar

Back in the 1970s we (Big Flame) found ourselves continually forced into the kind of discussions that davidbroder’s argument implies. We always worked alongside the SWP, and before that many of us worked alongside the International Socialists (a much better organisation, in my view). In Rock Against Racism, SWP members were excellent; in their much more tightly controlled Anti-Nazi League they were much more sectarian and authoritarian. Sometimes they were helpful in TOM (Troops Out Movement – Ireland), sometimes not. Which illustrates david’s point – lots of SWPers are much more open-minded and libertarian than their public face (and their chief spokespeople in local meetings) suggests. But it also very clear that they will never change their basic position, as they derive it from Trotsky and Lenin: they are building the revolutionary party which will seize control of the state by a probably violent revolution. I for one have no truck with that position, and see no point in arguing it out with SWPers, except to set the seeds for what (as david also says) will actually happen: almost all of them will leave by the time they are 35. Personally, I can’t be bothered listening to the podium posers that Marxism sets up each year, but it seems like a good idea to attend and discuss contemporary political issues with other attendees. But I think the real focus should be on building local coalitions – including the now independent ex-SWPers, ex-Militant, ex-Big Flame, ex the 30 or so other Trotskyist groupuscules (see the list on the back page of BF’s excellent pamphlet on Trotskism) and all the young people now being drawn into the struggle. When those coalitions gain large numbers of people willing to take militant action, the voices of left libertarians will be heard – and so long as we can avoid the sectarian sedimentation that so often destroys those coalitions we could make some real progress.

9 07 2011
Jim Parker

Dave,
First an apology for my sloppy grammar – I wasn’t accusing you making accusations, I should have written “we” as I was referring to almost every previous discussion I’ve ever had with comrades. Even insignificant tactical differences used to lead to a a major theoretical disagreement. That’s where a misunderstanding of Democratic Centralism takes us all.
I hope to respond to you and Max Farrar’s but tat will take some thought and better grammar than I usually spew so there will be another posting.

Cheers
Jim

11 07 2011
Matthew Caygill

Well I was there and have been since I first went c1980 (but will soon have attended more as an ex-member (or free-loader as Chris Harman once told me) than as a member. Now this can be seen as a failure to move on, but despite all the horrors of Marxism – the blankings and the disregard and the general tone of old time religious revivalism (down to talking in tongues as we chanted slogans in Arabic) – it remains an important event. The SWP present it as a festval of resistance for the left and we should atempt to hold them to that. The UCL quad would be brilliant for that. Weekly Worker was right to make a comparion to the Lutte Ouvriere festival.
To engage with the SWP means engaging with cerntral ideas and strategies. Key to its success this year was the focus on the Egyptian Revolution, with thhe implcit view that this is the sort of political trasnformation we want to see and that the SWP’s comrades in the Revolutionary Socialists are central to the revolution. Secondly there is the resistance to the Tories and the cuts, especially the strikes on June 30th. Again the SWP thought they were prety central to June 30th. coming from that is the programme of aiming for a general strike.
To be taken seriously at Marxism you will need to speak seriously about both these areas, and be able to show how that connects to the nature of whatever sort of political organisation it is we want.
And we also need to address the local coalitions that Max Farrar talks about – I work with Max on a rather different political project.

11 07 2011
Jim

Dave,
I like your attitude in particular your desire to avoid sectarianism and promote discussion. So to continue the discussion, politically how we get to where we want to be depends not just on how we organise but also on where you start, who you want to travel with, the opposition and difficulties we encounter.
The ruling class is tightly organised with not just its police and armed forces, but also a pervasive ideology and domination of mass media and culture. Ultimately we will have to deal with a “war” situation no ruling class gives up without trying terrorism and open warfare. This fact cannot be avoided but it is not the starting point for the journey to an alternative society.
The starting point is though dealing with the dominant ideology simply organising for the final battle allows the ruling class to use their soft power, political parties, control of the mass media to sideline us. As you say “we are animals of this system” trapped surviving in the cage of our own making. So the task is to overcome the ideology, build confidence and hope that the working class will spontaneously (?) arise to overthrow capitalism. Except that today we are seeing in North Africa what happens when there is no definite (organised?) alternative. The magnificent spontaneous uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are all heading towards bourgeois democracy.
We need to work out what we (individual, sect, group or party) want by being involved in the everyday struggle, making a determined effort to work with other left activists, countering the sectarian delusions wherever possible and sharing the positive lessons.
I found this to be an incredibly difficult task, so much so that I dropped out of politics for years but today we are entering a period where the ruling class is critically exposed, their economy is teetering on the edge of disaster, with its front line defenders (the parliamentary parties) clueless and in weakened states with the possibility of a mass of new people being drawn into initially defensive reformist struggles that could spin out of the control of their representatives.
Your definition of sectarianism is spot on and in fact I wouldn’t invite a Labour MP to a hanging, but that’s because I’m against the death penalty.
Yet, if you can get a politician or union leader along to a meeting you’ve probably made some sort of strategic mistake. You’ve definitely made a tactical mistake but then our meetings will be tiny gathering of 10, 100, 2000. (We should be so lucky.)
In real issues with non-political people we have accept that the working class see politics through the medium of parliament and the mass media; a minority through the trade unions. We have to go to where they are and address the issues from their viewpoint. If this means suffering a union bureaucrat or Labour bank job applicant on a platform then that means we have to prepare constructive questions and action.
We won’t be doing this if we remain in small groups wary of each other, which is why Max Farrar’s contribution is so valuable, build local contacts, get involved with other comrades. Help them out you don’t need to be equal partners or to differentiate yourself from them, work with them explain when asked why you won’t join them but maintain the contacts.

Cheers
Jim

2 08 2011
Mike Pearn

As Dave knows I find the idea of libertarian communism a contradiction in terms. That said it is positive that comrades who define themselves as such seek to engage with the SWP and IS Tradition. Had comrades from The Commune contributed to the meetings held at Marxism that related to the libertarian and anarchist traditions a better debate might have resulted to the benefit of all. But I suspect that given the eclectic nature of the traditions concerned that this might have exposed their weaknesses more than their strengths.

I must also confess to a certain amusement at Daves concern that the potential of Marxism, the festival, be unleashed by opening it to debates between the SWP and a multitude of smaller groups. Perhaps the SWP might also be convinced that it have a speaker from at least one additional left group at each of its weekly branch meetings? Quite frankly I wonder at the advisability of a small group of a few thousand militants engaging with groups that number in the tens at best. Would it not be a better idea for said groups to organise their own festival and invite the SWP to send speakers rather than berating the SWP for not providing them with a platform?




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